Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, A Place of Forgetting, and No Substitute for Murder. She penned two humorous cozy mysteries, The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, with her husband, Mike Nettleton. By the Sea of Regret, the sequel to An Uncertain Refuge, will emerge in the late fall of 2012.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.
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Recently I reconnected with several men and women who were also Volunteers in Service to America during the early 1970’s in Arkansas. We’ve been playing “remember the time that?” and exchanging photos and anecdotes from back in the day. Each exchange opens a door to another mental room crammed with memories of incidents that feel almost as if they happened to someone else.
(Hmmm. And I thought I’d reached the age where events in the distant past were supposed to be more vivid than what happened yesterday.)
I joined VISTA because, in the middle of my first year of grad school (University of Arizona), while reading the criticism of a critique of an analysis of a novel, several things occurred to me. 1) The criticism was three degrees removed from the original talent—the author of the novel being dissected. 2) The paper I’d been assigned to write would be another degree removed. 3) I couldn’t remember how I made this career choice. 4) I wanted a do-over. 5) There was more to the world. 6) I wanted to see it. 7) Now. 8) Or at least pretty darn soon.
I closed the book and turned on the TV only to discover that local stations were signing off for the night. (Does that still happen? I haven’t stayed up past 10 PM in years.) A public service announcement came on and I saw the letters VISTA. I wasn’t exactly sure what VISTA was all about, but I knew it was a detour from the road to teaching.
I filled out an application without hesitation and without discussing my decision with anyone. A few weeks later I was accepted and that July headed to training in Austin, Texas—a week of lectures and discussion groups aimed at deciding which volunteers fit the program and where they would be sent. When the week was up, I was headed for Little Rock, Arkansas, assigned to food and medical programs.
Little Rock, where summer temperatures around 100 were compounded by humidity above 100%, where rain showers only made things steamier, where just opening the door to an air-conditioned building made me gasp with relief.
We lived on poverty wages, renting houses in neighborhoods that made my parents swallow hard and bite their tongues to keep from begging me to come home to the Catskills. (A sure way to get me to do just the opposite.) We ate peanut butter from economy-size jars, generic cheese that came in huge blocks, beans and potatoes and rice, and whatever was on sale. Now and then an orphanage gave us their surplus day-old bread.
For entertainment, we played softball and went to the drive-in movies on carload night. We played pool in a tavern that was best not viewed in the daylight. Dangerous as it was, we swam in bauxite pits outside of town.
I was a middle class kid—the lower rung of the middle class, as my mother often said—but my parents owned our house and we had indoor plumbing and hot water. There was always enough to eat and enough blankets on a bed I didn’t have to share. When winter came I had a warm coat, boots, and mittens—often hand-me-downs, but sometimes new. I got booster shots and had my inflamed tonsils removed and, from the time my first tooth pushed through, I owned a toothbrush.
During my first year in VISTA I met kids who had few of those things—even one who never had a toothbrush—despite the fact that their parents worked, and worked hard. I became aware of stark inequities, of ingrained opinions and attitudes, of deep social and economic chasms.
But despite that, the world seemed filled with possibilities, especially possibilities for positive change, for bridges across the chasms.
As time went by, however, I realized how powerless I was to repaint the big picture. Worse, I recognized that there were times when I had been part of a problem rather than part of a solution.
And every day I saw how fortunate I’d been, how fortunate I still was. When my term was up, I could pack my car, take my teaching degree, and get a job almost anywhere.
But, like many of the Volunteers I served with, I stayed on for several years. I worked for the Commission on the Status of Women and then got into TV news as a producer and assignment editor. That was a career I stuck with for the next 25+ years; it took me to New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. When the pressure of meeting deadlines became more exhausting than exhilarating, I gave up TV, started plotting my first novel, and made ends meet by working as an associate editor for Editing International and as a high school substitute teacher.
I was a VISTA for two years. I didn’t change the world. But I did change the way I looked at it.
The VISTA years opened my eyes to prejudice and poverty, to inequity and injustice, and to kindness and commitment. The VISTA years also made me aware of more subtle things—what I call the “fine print of life,” the subtext of situations, the back-story information that explains attitudes, interactions, and events. The experiences of those years enabled me to be more patient in the classroom, to be a more compassionate and generous friend, and (hopefully) to be a better writer.